After pushing Heat, Pacers look to take next step
(The Sports Network) The Indiana Pacers had the Miami Heat against the ropes in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, but couldn't seem to land the knockout punch.
It was the second season in a row the Pacers were eliminated by the eventual NBA-champion Heat, but the 2013-14 campaign is showing more promise for Indiana than ever before.
The Pacers return a strong core with Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Danny Granger and David West. George emerged as one of the league's top players last season and Hibbert solidified himself as one of the best all-around centers the NBA.
West provides Indiana with veteran leadership and a crafty offensive game. Granger missed all but five games last season with a knee injury, but his return could mean big things for the Pacers in 2013-14.
Indiana also benefited greatly, especially in the playoffs, from the improved play of Lance Stephenson. The Cincinnati product used the East Finals as a coming out party. While Stephenson didn't exactly light the world on fire, he proved to be more than just an average player, especially on the defensive end.
Although the Pacers had a lot to build on and look forward to after the strong campaign, they did have some needs to address.
One of the Pacers' biggest weaknesses last season was a lack of depth.General manager Larry Bird addressed that need in a big way, trading for power forward Luis Scola and signing point guard C.J. Watson and forward Chris Copeland. Scola provides starting-caliber talent at power forward off the bench. Watson will give the Pacers a more than capable backup to point guard George Hill.
Who's In/Who's Out
Key Additions: Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, Chris Copeland, Solomon Hill
Key Losses: Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin, Gerald Green, Jeff Ayers, Miles Plumlee
Hibbert emerged as one of the best defensive centers in the league last season, and also performed at a high level on the offensive end.
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West received a three-year extension in the offseason and George has cemented himself as one of the up-and-coming superstars in the league, giving the Pacers the strongest front court in the East, and possibly in the entire league.
George made himself an up-and-coming superstar and the return of Granger will only help take the pressure off George.
Stephenson had an impressive run in the playoffs and adds a strong defensive-minded presence in the backcourt. Hill is perhaps the Pacers' weakest link in the backcourt as he tends to be very inconsistent but he is still above average.
The bench is also better than last year. Scola has the ability to average nearly a double-double off the bench and, while Watson isn't a great scorer, he will give the team a bona fide ball handler.
The Not So Good
Despite improvements, the Pacers may still have a tough time making the jump thanks to how stocked te top of the Eastern Conference is.
Miami are still the champs. Chicago has Derrick Rose back and Brooklyn stocked up with the additions of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.
And while the bench is improved, it still lacks elite depth. The team lost Tyler Hansbrough who provided a real spark and physicality off the bench while backup centre Ian Mahinmi is still very raw.
What To Expect
This may be the season the Pacers drop the "up-and-coming" tag and prove that they are perennial contenders. They definitely have the pieces to do so with a superstar like George, a dominant big man with Hibbert and a veteran leader in West. If Granger can stay healthy and the bench produces to its potential, don't be surprised to see the Pacers lifting the Larry O'Brien trophy in June.